Moscow, Russia (openDemocracy) – Russian oil giant Rosneft has dumped on us northerners once again. It’s unlikely that anyone apart from the locals would have heard about the pipeline which burst on the outskirts of Nefteyugansk if not for photos of the aftermath on social media.
The pictures were taken by Andrei Seleznyov, a light aircraft pilot; and the local media, swiftly followed by national TV and press, picked them up after they appeared online on 27 June.
The burst had in fact taken place several days before on 23 June. The pipeline, lying along the bed of a channel at a depth of around three metres, burst at a point about a kilometre outside town, covering a four hectare area of water with a one-millimetre-thick iridescent film.
This, at least, was the estimate of the damage made by inspectors from Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, who visited the site on 2 July, accompanied by the deputy CEO of the Rosneft subsidiary responsible for the pipeline, as well as two independent observers.
According to the Environmental Ministry, the real extent of the spill was in fact impossible to assess. High water levels led to the further dispersal of oil, some of which ended up on the channel’s banks and in the gardens of neighbouring houses. Environmental officers are confident that floating booms will prevent the oil flowing into the nearby massive river Ob, but the real size of the slicks, both in rivers and on dry land, will become clear only after the lifting of gale warnings in the area.
For the moment, no one will even hazard a guess at the overall scale of the disaster – apart, that is, from Rosneft’s vice-president Michael Leontyev, who combines his day job with a Kremlin spin doctor role.
From Leontyev’s office in Moscow, the spill appears localised, even minimal: ‘the leak was very small, but later, heavy rain carried some of the oil into a reservoir.’ This claim conflicts with a statement from the Emergencies Ministry, reported on regional TV, according to which it flowed out of the reservoir again, but the volume of the spill was still unknown.
Leontyev’s response to this was that ‘it was no longer oil’ but some undefined ‘film’ that would not be easy to remove, but could be cleared within a week.
The clean-up is postponed
Leontyev and his company didn’t, however, finish the job in a week. On 3 July, the Emergency Ministry’s regional team, which was also involved in the clean-up, told TASS news agency that the operation had been postponed until 7 July because of the bad weather – the technology used to clear oil spills requires high air temperatures.
A week later, a new date of 20 July was announced. The emergency team told TASS that ‘much of the work has been done’, and indeed, by that point, 118 cubic metres of oil had been removed. Fifteen floating booms, with an overall length in excess of four kilometres, had been installed to prevent further dispersal of the oil. But, probably due to the continuing high water levels, the process took longer than expected, and on 22 July there was still no further news from either the Emergencies Ministries or Rosneft.
On 21 July, the news agencies announced that two senior Rosneft managers had been sacked. There was no reference to whether this was connected to the oil spill.
The residents of Nefteyugansk, and indeed the whole region of Khanty-Mansiisk, have been more down-to-earth in their assessment. Unsurprising: they’re closer to the disaster than the political commentators.
In the words of one blogger: ‘now they’re not just flooding us, but flooding us with oil. There’ll be no more bathing, no more fish; nothing will grow in our gardens.’ The public mood is generally one of fury, with the occasional burst of irony: ‘Putin the Great has kept his promise: Russians are swimming in oil. Even the Emirates can’t match it.’
Stanislav Meshcheryakov, deputy head of the Department of Industrial Ecology at Moscow’s Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, thinks that it will take Rosneft several years to clean up the contaminated area (if it were actually to try).
‘I don’t know how much oil ended up in the river, and how much on its banks,’ Mescheryakov told Nakanune.ru. ‘But it will affect the entire food chain, from microorganisms through small crustaceans eaten by fish. And people will also catch the oil-contaminated fish’.
Meshcheryakov believes that the floating film of oil will deprive fish of oxygen and that they will lose their food supply: ‘we can clean the banks using synthetic microorganisms. But in one place there will be 5% oil per m², and in another, 50%. The microorganisms will deal with the 5% areas in one season, but larger concentrations will require two or three, which will be very costly’.
A region covered in oil
Leontyev is right in saying that nothing unusual has happened in Nefteyugansk. For Rosneft, it is a perfectly normal situation.
It is not just Russian sources that put the company at the top of the accident league. Greenpeace and global statistics confirm it – Rosneft is responsible for 10,000 oil spills a year. An inspection conducted by Rosprirodnadzor three years ago concluded that it accounted for 75% of leaks in the Khanty-Mansiisk region of western Siberia, where Nefteyugansk is situated.
After a visit to the area in 2012, Environmental Minister Yuri Trutnev wrote that ‘the earth is practically covered in oil. It was not a question of finding contaminated areas – we had a problem finding any unpolluted ones. There are oil rivers, oil lakes, oil ponds – all the carelessly spilt detritus from accidents’.
In 2013, Rosneft consolidated its position as king of the spills: the regional environmental watchdog reported that its subsidiaries were responsible for 2,188 accidents (95% of all pipeline bursts in the region). There are as yet no statistics available online for last year and this, but if you search online for ‘Rosneft, accidents’, you will find numerous results.
Rosneft is also active in other regions. Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a non-governmental organisation, was immediately able to bring me up to date on spills at oil wells owned by a Rosneft subsidiary on this far eastern edge of Russia.
On 7 May this year, an internal pipeline burst at the Mongi oilfield in the Nogliki district. The oil leaked into the Nelbutu River, which flows into the central part of Nyisky Bay on the Sea of Okhotsk. The spill is a mere 200-300 metres away from the Dagi Springs, a popular tourist destination and regional natural park. Local people are saying that the oil has seriously polluted not only the river but also a part of the bay; and both Rosprirodnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry have been informed.
The previous day, another spill had been discovered, at the Ekhabi Vostochoye oilfield belonging to the same Rosneft subsidiary in the Okhinsky district of the island of Sakhalin. The oil had been leaking since March, and it is still unclear whether its source has been located.
Several thousand square metres of oil-polluted soil have also been found on both banks of a creek that flows into Ekhabi Bay – also on Sakhalin, which has only a narrow outlet into the Sea of Okhotsk. The oil is continuing to flow into the creek, and from there, into the bay. Here, any accurate assessment of the extent of the pollution is hindered by the fact that the oil is spreading out under a thick layer of snow.
Sakhalin Environmental Watch suspects that the oilmen have not informed any government agencies of this spill, and so they have themselves reported it to the public prosecutor’s office, the Emergencies Ministry and Rosprirodnadzor. In 2010 and 2012, there were a number of similar leaks and spills in the district. And one notable incident took place last year, when the Ura.ru news website reported that ‘in Nizhevartovsk, oil might start coming out of your tap; there has been a spill next to the water intake from the reservoir.’
Historic legacy – or excuse
Meanwhile, Mikhail Leontyev explains his company’s trail of environmental destruction with suitable spin:
‘We had these wonderful oil companies such as Yukos and TNK-BP, with businesslike owners whose aim was to make as much money as possible, so they paid little attention to infrastructure. This is our historic legacy. This is why we have all these unfortunate oil leaks and spills, but we are fighting back. It’s no big tragedy’.
The truth of this statement can be gauged by the following: Environmental Ministry statistics for 2012 show that the company which spent the most on environmental compliance was TNK-BP (26.1 billion roubles, or £292.7m), while the company that spent the least (8.6 billion roubles less, to be exact) was Rosneft.
It was the downfall of Yukos that gave Rosneft its opportunity a decade or so ago. In 2003, Yukos’s owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on a charge of fraud, and in 2005, he was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. When the company’s assets were seized by the government and auctioned off, Rosneft, a small state-owned company at the time, was able to acquire most of them at a fraction of their value. By 2005, Rosneft had become Russia’s second-largest producer of oil and gas. In 2013 it acquired its rival TNK-BP as well.
The spectre of Yukos still haunts the bureaucrats of Khanty-Mansiisk. Last winter, Nefteyugansk suffered a series of breakdowns in its utilities, leaving many residents without heating.
But the main problem, according to Ura-ru, is not burst pipes. The local residents’ taps produce not water, but a cloudy, greasy substance, and sometimes even a black liquid bearing a distinct resemblance to crude oil. The regional and municipal authorities say that the problems go back to the time when Yukos practically owned the town.
The locals, however, are sceptical: in a letter to Vladimir Putin, they wrote ‘our water quality has been deteriorating year on year for a decade now. Our tap water is not only undrinkable; we cannot even wash in it’.
Rosprirodnadzor has now opened an administrative case against Rosneft for violating regulations governing bodies of water, which may lead to their contamination and obstruction. If found guilty, the officials in charge may face a fine of 30-40,000 roubles (£320-430): the official monthly salary of Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin is 500-700 times that sum.
The investigation of the incident is now in the hands of the Khanty-Mansiisk public prosecutor, whose press officer Inga Snatkina told me: it is still too early to talk about the extent of the damage or who is responsible for it. The results of the investigation, she says, should be known by the end of July.
Written by GEORGY BORODYANSKY for openDemocracy.